Thursday, 3 October 2013

Modifying and Painting a Guitar

I'm not really interested in nice, pristine, gold plated hardware or immaculately hand tooled/carved fingerboards - and the sight of an airbrushed LA sunset or swooping eagle kind of turns my stomach. That kind of customization belongs on muscle cars and Prog Rock album covers from the '70's. On my kind of guitars I prefer a more quirky style, sort of Jean Michel Basquiat meets Picasso, or that DIY Punk aesthetic: road worn and battered with faded stickers and hand painted artistic doodles.

A couple of years ago I modified and painted a cheap small bodied Strat that I bought off EBay for about £30. The action was really bad on it, the pickup was tinny and fuzzy, and it wasn't much too look at - basically a piece of junk!

The great thing about these E-Bay bargains is that they give you the freedom to explore, mess about with components, not get all precious and scared of scratching the paintwork or burning up a pot. You can take them apart and get a good idea of how an electric guitar works without the anxiety of: 'Oh my god I've ruined this masterpiece'!

I ruminated long and hard on the creative possibilities available with an instrument like this. Funny, but it's limitations, while obviously closing doors to many things, opened doors to many more interesting one's too.

Number 1: Wood is poor quality - 3 part basswood, or alder with loads of filler.
Number 2: The components are pretty cheap and nasty but the neck is straight, frets are reasonable well dressed, and the tuning is pretty stable.

So I came to the conclusion that a decent set up a new pickup and a major overhaul of the cosmetic appearance of the guitar was the best way to go. After all, it couldn't really be any worse! The instrument looked a bit quirky to begin with, so why not 'super quirk' it, and at least it'll be more interesting to look at, theoretically.

I broke the guitar down, took all the components off, including the neck, and used Nitromorse paint stripper on the body. The paint stripper softened the finish just enough to get a grip with some heavy grade sandpaper. After a couple of hours of this I used finer grades of paper as I started to see the wood.

After getting a reasonably good finish on the face and around the horns and contours I decided to leave a section of the old black paint on the back - I'd seen this on a few 'reliced' guitars and thought it looked cool ... plus it saved me from anymore sanding!

After I'd finished the body I took the machine heads off the neck and sanded the back and headstock of that too. I blew the dust from the two sections with a hoover attachment and wiped it clean with a cotton rag dampened with a bit of white spirit (white spirit evaporates quickly, so unlike water is less likely to raise the grain - you could use meths too I suppose).

Money and lack of a proper ventilated space limited the available paint finishes that were available to me. Also, the natural wood grain finish was not going to work with this guitar, there was far too much ugly, patchy filler for that. I settled in the end on a very colourful and graphic abstract design done in good quality acrylics (it was what I had to hand at the time). After spot priming the areas of bare wood on the face I painted those areas with 2 coats of blue acrylic, and then, literally just dipped a couple of lettering brushes in the paint and let my imagination off the leash. I kept going back to the design after each drying session and modify and repainting over certain colours to give a stronger depth of tone.

Remember, I wasn't going for a highly finished showroom look so I decided to just let the blue fade out on the back of the body, merging into the bare wood and then the scratched and peeling black paint I'd left on there. I had to make the acrylic paint as thick as possible to cut down on water damage and help adhesion, while still allowing it to be worked with a brush ... bit of a nightmare! Next time I'm definitely going for the usual enamels, for application purposes, not just durability.

Next I sanded down the neck and headstock and brushed on a coat of dark mahogany varnish. When this was dry I sanded it back in parts to give it a worn look and feel. I decided to paint the face of the headstock in the same blue as the body - more for the hell of it than anything else. I wanted to replace the pickup, but was definitely not going to spend a lot of money. In the end I decided on a balance between 3 things; money, looks and sound, .. with looks kind of edging it.

I found a pair of Warman blackface P90 style pickups for £15 online; chosen more for their retro look than their sound. Anyway, they were far better than the stock pickup that came with the original instrument. I thought about changing the miniscule pots and caps that came with the former humbucker, but guessed, rightly I think, that any advances in tone were going to be miniscule overall, and the 500k pot and 22 cap were okay left in there, although that allowed a little more treble to bleed through of course (P90's are single coils).

Finally I put all the pieces back together, glad that I'd de-soldered the earth lead from the bridge from the back of a pot - I'd only got a 30 watt iron then. I strung it up with 10 - 46's which involved lots of trem claw adjustment to get the right trem/bridge/string height balance. The action was a little high for most people, but after I'd checked neck relief, and bridge saddle vertical travel, I realized that the nut was cut too high. Basically I was too lazy to get a needle file and refine it, and anyway, the action was 'okay'.

I was pleasantly surprised at how good the guitar finally sounded. The Warman bridge pickup sounded nice and glassy if a little trebly, but that was remedied by just turning the tone dial down.

~ H-Allen